On the surface, Garry Wills' "Outside Looking In: Adventures of an Observer" is an account of how a bookish young writer came to know a lot of famous people as a Zelig-like character amid glittering stars of political, journalistic and even operatic stages.
"As someone so colorless," Wills writes with attractive self-deprecation, "I am not interesting in myself, but I have been able to meet many interesting people and observe fascinating events, partly by being unobtrusive."
I would defy anyone who reads "Outside Looking In" to agree with him that he is not interesting himself. Yes, the snapshots of the famous (including Beverly Sills, Barry Goldwater and John Waters) and even those who are not (like his parents and wife) are indeed fascinating and the events which he has seen up-close equally so: But all this is enhanced by the unique nature of the person through which they are so memorably refracted.
A prize-winning historian, Wills notes that he stands uncomfortably between the two political poles, liberals and conservatives, each finding him at times a soul mate and at others anathema. But how could both sides not be charmed (initially anyway) by someone characterizing himself as a Distributist (taking his inspiration from a credo enunciated a century ago), even though it makes him fall squarely between them? "Distributism," Wills helpfully explains for those unfamiliar with this ideology, "was the politics of [ G.K.] Chesterton, neither capitalist nor socialist, arguing for the preservation of private property but for its wider distribution."
Wills' first mentor, William F. Buckley — like Wills, a fervent lifelong Roman Catholic — rejected it as "far from the free-market capitalism that [he] considered the basis of modern conservatism.... Liberals, on the other hand, would soon be telling me that I could not belong to them either, since they were secularists — my religiosity disqualified me." All of this tells one so much about Wills: about his sturdy independence of mind, his adherence to fundamental principles, his lifelong reading in search of enlightenment.
If the ostensible subjects of "Outside Looking In" are the people Wills has known, it is clear that the central experience of his life has been his passionate engagement with books. This not only led him to acquire a PhD in classics from Yale but has informed his life — and his own writing — with an uncommonly deep store of knowledge.
Wills rightly feels that he has been lucky, but he has also made some of that good fortune through his determination to seize opportunities. He does not wear his erudition lightly. Or even his reading, perhaps because he grew up in such an unbookish family. When he was in grade school, his father offered him $5 if he read nothing for a week. It is typical of Wills that he took the bet, won it, and then spent the money on a new book!
So it is not surprising that Wills uses what people read as a yardstick for judging them. He writes that both Bush presidents seem to have an aversion to reading, while Bill Clinton is most concerned with coming up with a book that will make Wills admire him.
Wills discovers that Nixon's taste in reading is surprisingly recondite. Indeed, so impressed is Wills by what it reveals that it causes him to look deeper into "Nixon Agonistes," as he entitled the 2002 book he wrote about him. But Wills can be deliciously wicked too: In his new book he quotes a horribly detailed portrait he penned in a 1968 Esquire article of that famous ski-jump nose, which alone was sufficient to earn him plenty of enmity in the Nixon camp. A few well-chosen words here showed that they could outdo a thousand pictures.
In the end, it's Wills who shines through "Outside Looking In" rather than those he has known. Not because he is egotistical or pushing, but because the qualities that drew these people to him will have the same effect on enchanted readers.
Rubin is the author of "Sarah Gertrude Millin: A South African Life."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun